When I was approached by View On Magazine to attend the Harmons Cooking School presentation of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship Favorites: Chef Adalberto Diaz and Chef Steve Konopelski, I had no idea what I was in for. I assumed there would be a light presentation of desserts and “this is what we did to make it to the finale” followed by a Q & A featuring the two guest chefs. The setting would be a simple boardroom style office venue, awkwardly adapted for the subject of the day — boy, was I wrong!
Hidden in the Santa Clara hills of southern Utah, Harmons is an unexpected treasure. The store itself was extremely comfortable to maneuver through, following the signs leading us to the cooking school located on the second floor. There was a charming glass-walled mezzanine overlooking the grocery store floor, where one could relax or eat a bite from the deli. The glass classroom door was just beyond with an adjacent sign welcoming guests and presenting the class of the day.
As I walked through the door, butterflies of excitement arose when I looked around the black granite, stainless steel, and glass tiled classroom. Gas stoves with bold red knobs were located around the perimeter of the room with ample workspace for prep on either side. A beautiful long black banquet table sat in the center of the room adorned with elegant flower centerpieces and red folders labeled Harmons Cooking School placed on each chair.
Having arrived early, I found two chefs in white coats immersed in cooking projects and was greeted by a third, Chef Jackie. Her friendly greeting immediately put me at ease, thanking ME for coming to their event. After a quick introduction to the Co-Chef of the cooking school, Shane Robillard, I was introduced to the guest chefs, Chef Adalberto “Al” Diaz and Chef Steve Konopelski. The guest chefs had both been runners-up on the 5th Season of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship. Chef Jackie enlisted their skills to create a cooking experience for the Harmons classroom setting, to share their favorite recipes from their previous competitions. Chef Al presented us with a beautiful plate of vibrantly colored macaroons. They tasted phenomenal! I was able to wander about the beautiful kitchen, asking questions, taking in my surroundings.
When all guests had arrived, Caitlin Clementson presented a delicious wine from the south of France, paired with a delightful but light meat, cheese, and fruit plate to start the evening, and an herbed lemonade for guests that did not drink wine. We were given a brief history of the wine and region; an excellent pre-show.
The class sat 12 comfortably, with two overhead TV monitors above the central workstation for observation of techniques. Chef Jackie and Chef Shane officially welcomed the guest Chefs to their kitchen, and then the show started.
Over the course of the next hour, Chef Al and Chef Steve prepared 12 perfected recipes they had made while competing in the Food Network competitions. Their details were impeccable. Chef Steve quickly prepared two different caramel sauces; salted caramel and passion fruit, describing one sauce as a buttery raincoat for Sherry cupcakes. Once Chef Steve completed a task he would verbally pass the baton to Chef Al, who jumped right in with the next recipe. He walked us through preparing two different sponge cakes, only taking 12 minutes to bake! He made graham cracker crumbs from scratch, additionally making note how to adjust for a gluten-free graham cracker recipe. They passed around spices that they were using while advancing the preparation of the gourmet recipes. The rich black licorice scent of the star anise smelled terrific!
“Forget testing your cake with toothpicks, save them for your teeth … Just bake it until it’s done. If you touch [the cake] and it springs back, it’s done. No two ovens bake exactly alike, and every time you open the oven, you release heat. Use the oven window; it’s there for a reason,” he said humorously. This was easily one of the best quotes from Chef Steve throughout the whirlwind cooking experience.
The recipe pages we were presented at the beginning of the night were soon covered with notes from tips that you would never get from a standard recipe. Combine that with the humor and friendship that these two chefs emulated made this a fabulous event. It indeed was a seamless theatrical experience!
When the final touches were made, we were invited to help ourselves to a little tasting. It was so much sugar, but oh so good! We were then offered time to ask questions of the chefs. They shared their experiences from the shows, their background before cooking, their current activities, and how their lives have changed since the shows. It was thoroughly entertaining to hear the behind the scenes activity of the making of a cooking show.
Chef Adalberto Diaz’ passion for baking started as a young man in Cuba, where he baked for friends and family, basically running an underground bakery because owning a baking business was illegal. He came to the U.S. from Cuba with $100 in his pocket and help from a Utah family. In 2012, while cultivating his baking skills, he became the American Culinary Federation Pastry Chef of the Year. He opened his own bakery, Fillings and Emulsions in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2013, and will celebrate his 5-year anniversary since opening in August 2018. He has 16 employees that assist him to fill the bakery daily and to provide Harmons Neighborhood Grocers exclusively with his delicious macaroons. “We are not a regular bakery. My goal is to bring you what you can’t find anywhere else,” he said. You can find Chef Al on FaceBook and at www.fillingsandemulsions.com.
As a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., Chef Steve Konopelski’s first passion was in dance and performing. He was an accomplished Broadway dancer and performer, but eventually left the stage to pursue his second passion, baking. He graduated from the French Culinary Institute at the top of his class in 2012. His years of performance add exciting energy to his baking demonstrations, evoking emotions I never expected to experience in a kitchen. Chef Steve and his husband Rob Griffith opened a beautiful Victorian-era waterfront Bed and Breakfast, Turnbridge Point®, in Denton, Maryland in 2015. He additionally designs wedding cakes, runs the Turnbridge Point’s catering business and teaches baking classes to guests of the B&B. Their website www.turnbridgepoint.com is a treat in and of itself, and a destination I hope to visit one day.
This was so much more than an experience. Chef Jackie Dodart and co-Chef Shane Robillard have developed a fantastic venue filled with love for the culinary arts. They offer a variety of classes to experience.
Santa Clara Harmons Cooking School is a 2 time winner of the Best of State Food and Beverage Service Education. You can follow the local chefs on Instagram @jackiedodart or @chef_sheriff_. For information regarding classes presented by Harmons go to www.harmonsgrocery.com/classes.